An allelic series at pax7a is associated with color polymorphism diversity in Lake Malawi cichlid fish

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2016
Authors:Roberts, RB, Moore, EC, Kocher, TD
Journal:Molecular Ecology
Date Published:12/2016
Type of Article:epub 27-Dec-2016 ahead of print; paywalled
Keywords:allelic series, cichlid fish, color morphs, pax7, Pigmentation

Despite longstanding interest in the evolution and maintenance of discrete phenotypic polymorphisms, the molecular genetic basis of such polymorphism in the wild is largely unknown. Female sex-associated blotched color polymorphisms found in cichlids of Lake Malawi, East Africa represent a highly successful polymorphic phenotype, found and maintained in four genera across the geographic expanse of the lake. Previously, we identified an association with an allelic variant of the paired-box transcription factor gene pax7a and blotched color morphs in Lake Malawi cichlid fishes. Though a diverse range of blotched phenotypes are present in Lake Malawi cichlid species, they all appeared to result from an allele of pax7a that produces increased levels of transcript. Here, we examine the developmental and genetic basis of variation among blotched morphs. First, we confirm that pax7a-associated blotch morphs result primarily from modulation of melanophore development and survival. From lab crosses and natural population studies, we identify at least three alleles of pax7a associated with discrete subtypes of blotched morphs, in addition to the ancestral pax7a allele. Genotypes at pax7a support initial evolution of a novel pax7a allele to produce the blotched class of morphs, followed by subsequent evolution of that pax7a blotched allele to produce additional alleles associated with discrete color morphs. Variant alleles of pax7a produce different levels of pax7a transcript, correlating with pigmentation phenotype at the cellular level. This naturally selected allelic series should serve as a case study for understanding the molecular genetic control of pax7a expression and the evolution of sex-associated alleles.

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